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A real turnip of a sci-fi thriller, 1968's The Bamboo Saucer is a wild title to see show up on Blu-ray. More or less out of reach for decades, it spent most of its life putting insomniacs to sleep between car commercials on the Late-Late show. In other words, genre addicts will flock to Olive Films' new release. Just last year Olive gave the egregiously incompetent Fire Maidens of Outer Space a glorious HD release as well. Is this a great country or what?
The Bamboo Saucer was made by industry veterans taking a shot at a feature film -- producer Jerry Fairbanks had been making short subjects, often science-oriented, since the early 1930s. Writer-director Jack Telford was a prolific TV producer. They had the connections to round up some names for the cast and to secure good technical help. Co-writer Rip Van Ronkel had contributed to the original Destination Moon. Optical expert John Fulton also received story credit, while ace cameraman Hal Mohr had been filming since before the Titanic went down. This is the last or near last movie for several notables on the credits. Great actor Dan Duryea died before the film's 1968 opening, but evidence suggests that the actual shooting had taken place as early as two years before.
The filmmakers offer an unusual prescription for Cold War tensions: the film's American and Russian characters join forces to fend off their common enemy, China. Viewers will also be surprised to see that in most respects The Bamboo Saucer is competently made. But it stumbles badly in the special effects department.
The awkwardly structured story begins as one kind of movie, changes to another, and finishes up as a third. Discredited for claiming to have barely survived an aerial game of tag with a flying saucer, test pilot Fred Norwood (John Ericson) tries to clear his name by searching for UFOs over the Nevada skies. When a fellow pilot is killed chasing a bogie, Federal Intelligence agent Hank Peters (Dan Duryea) uses Fred's description to confirm reports of a saucer found by peasants in a remote corner of Red China. The alien inhabitants reportedly died of Earthly infections, and were cremated. John, Hank and two scientists parachute into Red territory to locate the saucer and secure its technological secrets for the America. Chinese guide Sam Archibald (James Hong) leads the way, until the group runs into a rival Russian expedition with the same mission. Military leader Dubovsky (Rico Cattani) and Hank immediately face off along predictable nationalist lines, but Fred and beautiful Russian engineer Anna Karachev (Lois Nettleton of Mail Order Bride) immediately hit it off. The saucer is hidden in a lonely building in a valley. While Sam's men picket the hills for Red Chinese patrols, the assembled scientists decide to work together to figure out how to enter the saucer and make it function. Fred and Anna find time to help a Chinese peasant take care of her sick baby. After a Russian kills himself trying to activate the ship on his own, Fred and Anna work out the complex controls and overcome some tricky conceptual problems. Running out of patience, Dubovsky attempts to take over the joint expedition at gunpoint.
The Bamboo Saucer is not going to register very high on the interest meters of most viewers, but be forewarned that this writer finds almost any Sci-fi picture fascinating. The actors are professional and earnest, especially Duryea, Ericson and Ms. Nettleton. The characterizations are mostly straight from the 1950s. Nettleton's engineer is first glimpsed taking a shower in a waterfall; she's sort of a softer version of Janet Leigh's Russki air ace in Howard Hughes' Jet Pilot. Minor actor Rico Cattani is rather good as the suspicious, treacherous Russian commander. His Dubrovsky orders one of his men to his death, forbids fraternization between Fred and Anna, and then tries to break the truce at gunpoint. His villainy is balanced by another, humanistic Russian scientist. The only other real change from the '50s norm is Dan Duryea's Hank Peters, who is almost as obstinate as his Russian counterpart. Hank's exact role (is he C.I.A.?) is not disclosed.
The rival spy teams eventually unite to combat squads of militant Red Chinese, suggesting that our Fear and Loathing should be reserved for a greater enemy. In reaction to the totalitarian regime of Chairman Mao, more than one Sci-fi effort concocted a belligerent, racist fantasy about Red China: Battle Beneath the Earth, The Chairman (The Most Dangerous Man in the World), Project X. Even James Bond got into the act -- Goldfinger's dirty atom bomb for Fort Knox was imported from the land of Uncle Mao.
The Bamboo Saucer has a great many special effects shots. They're ambitious, fairly well designed, and for the most part completely inadequate. John P. Fulton had become an industry legend for devising complex, groundbreaking effects in classics like The Invisible Man. This show sees him brought low by budgetary limitations. In the opening, a flying saucer is crudely matted over stock shots of an F-104 jet fighter. Not only are the stock shots faded and scratchy, the bright blue saucer is a poor fit for its own holdout matte, and never looks like real part of the image. In fact, it looks like a perspective-challenged blue mistake -- not even the sound effects can save it.
A partial saucer mockup is used for much of the film's long middle section with the actors, but wide shots in the saucer's "hangar" building are also matte composites, with wonky color and unstable matte lines. Effects fabricator Glen Robinson's saucer model moves well when it hovers and when its landing gear fold up. Yet it always looks pasted-in. It is possible that the saucer color was thrown off to dark blue, just so that it would stay consistent throughout the film. The live-action mockup saucer is a gray metal color.
The interior of the alien saucer is really quite amusing -- its panels of buttons and lights look like Hollywood designs for a human-piloted ship. The saucer has a very nicely done doorway in its unbroken outer skin -- an iris that opens and closes with (for once) a nicely animated matte.
In this age of digital work, the cheapest home computer program can mock up a better-looking saucer in only a few hours. A pro digital effects shop would be trying to complicate the shots, just to make them more interesting. The Bamboo Saucer's final composites now resemble sloppy pre-production animatics. It's not difficult to visualize today's artists at work stations blending the saucers into the scenes, matching textures and creating lighting effects to make it all seem like one shot. The dirt on those stock shots would disappear, shadows would be added, light flares as the sunlight bounced off the shiny saucer's surface... meanwhile, we're watching the best that could be done with a bare-bones budget that didn't allow for fine-tuning the work. It's also very possible that Fulton didn't live long enough to personally supervise the film's lab work - he passed away in 1966.
The show really falls apart when the survivors of the Chinese attack manage to get the saucer aloft. After 95 minutes of a "lost patrol finds flying saucer in a barn" story, the movie changes gears a third time for a voyage to the planet Saturn. Just like the Tilt-a-Whirl bucket in Joe Dante's Explorers, the saucer gets stuck on an automatic course across the Solar System, while Fred and Anna struggle to find a way to disengage the autopilot. Meanwhile, we go on a disorganized tour of major planets. Mars looks okay but the artwork for Saturn is a mess. A shot of our Moon shows stars shining brightly through the dark, unlit part. And this just a few months after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Actors Duryea, Ericson, Nettleton and Cattani keep the show alive and interesting. Jack Telford's direction is undistinguished, and the battle scene is fairly primitive as well. He uses too many close-ups and two shots, which may be a holdover from TV work. Chinese exteriors are represented by the familiar Alabama Hills up in Lone Pine, and what might be a rented patch of the Fox movie ranch.
The movie is a quantum improvement on the 1950 turkey The Flying Saucer, which has a similar saucer-hunt theme. Almost nothing happens in the film, even after the flying saucer finally shows up in the last reel. The Bamboo Saucer isn't very kind to our Cold War rivals, but it ends rather nicely on a note of détante. 1
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Bamboo Saucer is an excellent widescreen transfer of this arcane oddity from the late 1960s. Colors are strong, unfortunately revealing the inferior effects work in all its garish glory. Flaws reported on other sites as "Film Damage" is really damage built into the duplicated stock shots, and was there when the movie was brand new.
The audio track is strong too, giving us an earful of a music score that changes with every dialogue passage. We're constantly being thumped with alternating ersatz Russian and Chinese themes, with bits of classical quotes thrown in for good measure.
Although The Bamboo Saucer has no religious message, an opening title card clumsily paraphrases a quote familiar from fantasies with faith-based themes: "To the (people who have seen UFOs) no explanation is necessary -- to all others no explanation is possible!"
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Bamboo Saucer Blu-ray rates:
1. I've never seen The Bamboo Saucer until now, but the title has always reminded me of a short story we were made to read in High School, in which a rescue-search party looking in the snow for a flying saucer or enemy craft (I think) is shocked to find a dead Angel, complete with heavenly wings. I believe the story was a vague parable about Peace On Earth, not a joke about our air defenses shooting down Santa Claus. The story may have had a Christian flavor, I don't remember.
Hey, Glenn! Read your review of The Bamboo Saucer and your footnote, about the story you read in school. It's strange how these things happen.
I recently picked up a copy of The Answer by Philip Wylie. It looks like some kind of 'peacenik/evangelical' edition from the illustration, but yes, it's a "peace is the answer' story.
Yes, that Wylie. When Worlds Collide and so on. I've been reading his 'doomsday' books as part of my 'Atomic film/book' section. A section your reviews have greatly expanded, BTW and thank you very much.
SPOILER: short story plotline detailed here
Short form: big nuke test in the South Pacific. A panicked call from the nearby support island brings the story protagonist face to face with a dead Angel. He's stunned, everyone who's seen it is stunned. It's kept secret as a CRISIS OF FAITH rumbles. The body is lost on its way to D.C.. Oddly, nobody bothered to take one single picture of it.
Meanwhile, in the EEEVIL Soviet Union, same thing happens. Another big Nuke and fallen angel. Only this time the doctor tasked with doing an autopsy is so scared and shocked he burns everything and kills himself. One assumes his 'godless Commie' soul was so shaken and so on.
The twist is that, some time later, the protagonist returns to the nuke test service island. It's no longer a sweet little place but all concrete and steel and moving islanders and so on. He encounters the son of the local Minister, who went mad over the Angel. The shamefaced boy reveals that the Angel had a book with writing on Gold pages, a short phrase in countless unidentified languages, many NOT OF THIS EARTH (it's assumed). At the back of the book are the Earth languages. The message: "Love One Another." The End.
Actually, it would make a pretty good Outer Limits or Twilight Zone episode.
Now you can tell I used a lot of shorthand in this description but I'm sure, both with your Sci Fi fannishness and your USAF 'brat' upbringing there's nothing there that will be lost in translation.
The story was first published in 1955, my copy was a 1996 thin book published by Dove Press.
It's actually a decent short story but there are parts that do strain logic and would need some additional work if it were to be made into a film or TV episode. We know how well documented the atomic tests were, so why didn't the boss of the shoot grab one of the guys and his Arriflex and say "you are now classified as ultra top-top secret. Take as many pictures as you can?"
Ah, anyway, probably bored you to tears by now. Just thought you'd like to know. It's fairly available via Amazon if you want to re-live that time. :) Thanks again for your column! -- Steve Harrison
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